For a short time in the early 1960s, Jesse Hill Ford seemed to be establishing himself as an important new voice in southern literature. After winning an Atlantic Monthly prize in 1959 for his short story “The Surest Thing in Show Business,” Ford published a promising first novel, Mountains of Gilead (1961), followed three years later by both the television and stage scripts of his drama The Conversion of Buster Drumwright, which appeared with an appreciative foreword by Donald Davidson, who had taught Ford and encouraged his early work. Ford seemed, as Davidson noted, “'inside' the tradition he explores, possessed by it while possessing it,” an artist in control of his material, whose language did not “condescend to picturesqueness or vulgarity.” (1)
Then in 1965 came The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones. Certainly Ford's best known work, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and subsequently a movie for which Ford and Stirling Silliphant wrote the screenplay, the novel is a fictionalized account of an actual killing. In Ford's version, Jones, a prosperous black undertaker, insists on divorcing his wife, who is having an affair with a white policeman, and his insistence leads to his murder and mutilation. Although the novel was a popular success and received extravagant praise from Ralph McGill in the Atlantic, serious reviewers severely criticized the book both for its sensationalism and for its technical failures in point of view and characterization. Publication two years later of Fishes, Birds, and Sons of Men, a collection of his early stories containing some of his best work, regained for Ford a degree of critical acclaim, but The Feast of Saint Barnabas (1969), examining from various perspectives a Florida race riot, was generally regarded as a failure and probably disappointed even Ford himself, who had anticipated that, like The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, it would be made into a film. After The Feast of Saint Barnabas, Ford published only one other substantial work of fiction, The Raider (1975), an ambitious historical novel set in West Tennessee before and during the Civil War. Like Ford's career, The Raider has moments that border on greatness, but, also like Ford's career, the early promise remains largely unfulfilled.
Born in Troy, Alabama, Ford grew up in Nashville, attended Montgomery Bell Academy, and received a B.A. from Vanderbilt University in 1951. After serving in the navy during the Korean War, Ford enrolled in Andrew N. Lytle's writing program at the University of Florida, completing an M.A. in 1955. As a senior at Vanderbilt, Ford was the campus correspondent for the Nashville Tennessean, and he continued to work as a journalist while a graduate student in Gainesville. From 1955 to 1957 he worked as a public relations director, first for the Tennessee Medical Association, then in Chicago for the American Medical Association. In 1957, however, he gave up his position and moved with his first wife and their three children back to Tennessee to his wife's hometown of Humboldt, where he devoted himself to his writing. In 1961 he spent a year at the University of Oslo as a Fulbright Scholar; later he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1966) and held visiting lectureships at various universities, including Memphis State (1969-71) and Vanderbilt (1987).
In 1971 Ford was acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of a black soldier who had parked at night in Ford's driveway and who, Ford believed, was threatening one of his sons. The incident attracted widespread attention, however, especially because the soldier's female companion was a relative of the woman whose actions provided the basis for The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones. In the years that followed, legal debts and family problems drove Ford to Hollywood and largely anonymous work rewriting screenplays. Later, however, he returned to Nashville, and there on June 1, 1996, in failing health, Ford committed suicide.
Ford's best work is in his short stories. In the novels he never quite achieves an adequate controlling form, but in the more sharply focused short fiction–in such stories as “The Savage Sound,” “To the Open Water,” and “Wild Honey,” for example–the prose is crisp, the vision clear, and the achievement real.